Sinclair, UPN turn up heat in affil fray

The battle between United Paramount Network and Sinclair Communications escalated late Tuesday, with UPN saying it has filed suit to prevent the station group from switching to the WB, while Sinclair CEO-designate Barry Baker threatened retribution against Par.

A spokesman for the joint venture between Chris-Craft and Par said, “We have filed suit in this matter to protect our rights, and we remain hopeful that this can be resolved in a timely manner.” However, the rep declined to give any details of the suit.

UPN last Friday sent a letter to Sinclair claiming it failed to inform UPN in writing of its intention to switch five of its stations to WB affiliation. The letter said that Sinclair had missed its deadline to do so, and therefore UPN considered Sinclair bound to remain with UPN until 2001 (Daily Variety, Aug. 4).

Verbal declaration

Sinclair disputes those claims, and Baker told Daily Variety that he intends to move forward with plans to convert to the WB. Sinclair executives on July 14 flew to Los Angeles and verbally informed Par execs Kerry McCluggage and Steve Goldman that the company intended to end its affiliation with UPN in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

“We have let them know, in no uncertain terms, we’re going to be with Warner Bros.,” Baker said Tuesday. “The fact that they want to file suits against their affiliates is incredible. It’s incredible they would run a business like this.”

Baker said that if UPN doesn’t back off the issue, Sinclair will consider yanking its affiliation with UPN in the six markets where the group isn’t slated to switch to the WB — including Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Kansas City, Mo. He also said business with Par’s syndication division could be affected.

“We have been known to live without networks in some of our markets,” Baker said. “Certainly, we will reexamine closely our relationship with the studio.”

A UPN suit would mean there’s a good chance Sinclair will countersue. In letters sent to UPN Monday, which have been obtained by Daily Variety, Sinclair threatened to take action.

The first letter, sent by Sinclair Broadcast Group attorney Michael Libowitz, said that UPN had “knowingly and tortiously, without cause, interfered with SBG’s business relationship with the WB Network.”

Sinclair also charged that UPN “defamed our client’s business reputation and otherwise caused our client damages.” The letter ordered UPN “to cease and desist” in order to “limit damages and harm already caused.”

Another letter from Sinclair’s vice president and general counsel, Robert Quicksilver, countered UPN’s charges by saying that UPN received written notice in the form of “articles and press releases which appeared in various newspapers, wire services and trade publications.”

Deadline issue

It’s unclear whether press releases and newspaper reports would hold up as written notification in court; one business and legal affairs executive, at a network unrelated to the UPN-Sinclair dispute, said they probably would not.

Sinclair also contests the deadline that UPN claims Sinclair missed. UPN in its letter said that Sinclair was required to exercise its out clause 180 days before the expiration of the affiliation agreements. Sinclair, however, believes it has until 120 days before the expiration, which is Sept. 15.

“We think their claim is without merit,” Quicksilver said. “The time period hasn’t even expired yet. There is no mistake.”

Sinclair also claims that “UPN has publicly acknowledged having received notice of this non-renewal” through statements released by UPN the day Sinclair announced it was switching to the WB.

However, UPN’s original statement was fairly ambiguous. Issued July 14, UPN said the network “looks forward to continuing that relationship in markets in which we have ongoing affiliation agreements. During our renewal discussions with Sinclair, we have been evaluating and continuing to assess our options in these markets and are confident UPN will be well-represented there.”

Syndie clout

Regardless of how the legal dispute pans out, a protracted battle between Par and Sinclair could seriously affect ongoing business between the two parties. In terms of syndication, Sinclair has tremendous clout because its stations are often the only viable buyer of syndie programming in their markets. Sinclair could easily move Par shows to terrible timeslots or refuse to buy programming in the future.

Even if Par forces Sinclair to remain with the WB, Sinclair could undermine the netlet by preempting its programming and refusing to promote the network. It seems more likely that Par will attempt to extract some form of settlement from Sinclair. UPN had no comment beyond the statement issued by the joint venture.

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